Cultural convention by day and concert by night, KCON NY 2017 brings panels that teach you everything from how to get K-pop business done to doing your makeup like top Korean pop idols. KCON NY, held at New Jersey’s Prudential Center since the summer of 2015 and presented this year by Toyota, has established itself as a must-attend event for those who want to take in K-pop and Korean culture, stock up on K-pop merchandise to fill their closets or cover their walls and, above all else, watch live performances from some of the industry’s top acts.
KCON’s strength lies in the diversity of its sets, with this year’s lineup bringing together seasoned idols (Highlight) and rising rookies (SF9, KNK), charming girl groups (GFriend) and R&B superstars (Zion.T). These acts came together on June 23 and treated the crowds to powerful ballads, layered choreography, silky smooth R&B, floor-shaking dance-pop, nostalgia-invoking covers, and more fanservice than most can handle.
Friday night’s opening act KNK emerged on stage in head-to-toe white and black ensembles and dove right into the violin-driven drama of “Sun.Moon.Star.” Lead singer Youjin impressed the crowd with his stellar ad libs, while main vocalist Inseong more than just held down the chorus, a mean feat for a group just one year into their career. The top-notch vocals and the floor choreography from the “Knock” got the crowd pumped and probably gained the group some new Tinkerbells. For their final song, the members skipped over their other singles and chose the lighthearted dance pop of “Day N Night” to end on. A curious choice, but it did give the crowd a glimpse at what else they can pull off aside from the melodrama of “Sun.Moon.Star” and the dark pop of “Knock.” During “Day N Night,” KNK took the time to interact with fans, touching hands with members of the crowd and posing for selfies.
Special MCs SinB (GFriend) and Chani (SF9) introduced us to the next performance: “Beauty and the Beast” by Highlight’s Dongwoon and GFriend’s Yuju. The harmonies were bumpy at first but smoothed out as the song progressed. Yuju’s voice sounded typically stunning and clear while Dongwoon’s deeper voice proved to be nicely complementary, and the performance never veered into oversung territory with unnecessary riffs and runs.
The sweet balladry wouldn’t last for long. FNC Entertainment’s first dance boyband SF9 came next and switched things up with “Easy Love,” their strongest single to date. Lead dancer Taeyang stood out with his sharp moves. His grey hair definitely helped, too and he’ll be one to watch in the next few years.
The group then spun a task-filled Fortune Wheel, conveniently named as to not draw Pat Sajak’s ire. The group was given the task to “propose” to an audience member named Paige, which inspired member Inseong to crack a clever “page one, page two” joke. Though most of the crowd came solely for the music, these cute moments gave the event more character and played up the non-musical aspects of K-pop that draw people in.
After moving Paige to tears with their sung proposals, the members jumped back into performance mode with their 2016 debut track “Fanfare” followed by “Roar.” SF9’s strength lies in their ability to pull off intricate, eye-catching choreography. The extended stages, however, made it a bit harder for the members to execute their choreography with the required depth for their formations, especially during “Roar.” The members, however, still pulled it all off and undoubtedly satisfied fans in the seats who longed for a closer view of their faves.
GFriend, the lone girl group of the evening, came next. Since their performance at last year’s KCON in Los Angeles, they’ve moved away from the classic K-pop inspired sound of their high school concept trilogy and the heavy synths of “Navillera” and shifted towards funky retro pop and more matured styling.
Another group well-known for their dancing skills, GFriend had to perform sans lead dancer Yerin, who was filming for a variety show set in an Indonesian jungle. Leading off with their latest single “Fingertip” off their Billboard World Album charting mini The Awakening, the girls came through with audibly live vocals and their signature synchronization. The dance break during “Rough,” arguably their breakthrough song, got the crowd cheering, while youngest member Umji’s adorable voice during “Navillera” drew endeared awwws from the crowd. Yuju, post-”Beauty and the Beast,” once again impressed the crowd with her vocal prowess. Though Yerin’s absence was both seen and felt, GFriend did a more-than-adequate job and represented girl groups well. The audience was more than just charmed by these five young women.
Following a K-pop level test hosted by SF9’s Inseong and Rowoon, Zion.T brought Korean R&B to the Prudential Center. Zion.T is one of the best-known musicians in Korea among young adults; his appeal lies in his #relatable, straight-from-the-heart lyrics and distinctive voice. Zion.T sauntered out on stage and walked towards a grand piano, where he performed a minute-and-a-half of “Complex” off his latest album OO, then rapped and dabbed his way through the easy-going and sweet “The Song.” Though the mostly pop-leaning crowd didn’t enter Prudential Center decked out in Zion.T merch like they had with their favorite boybands and girl groups, they undoubtedly knew his music and didn’t hesitate to sing or shout along. Case in point: the crowd sang along to the hope-filled “Eat” and got absolutely pumped as the first notes of the emotional ode to his family “Yanghwa BRDG” played. The crowd singing “haengbokhaja, haengbokhaja” (“Let’s be happy, let’s be happy”) was one of the most notable moments of the evening.
SF9 returned to the stage for a special sequence of cover performances: “Call Me Baby,” originally by EXO, and “Boy In Luv,” originally by BTS. Though the focus was on their well-executed choreography, the group frustratingly missed the chance to pull off the iconic harmonies of either song by performing truncated versions of both.
Closing the first night of KCON NY was headlining act and eight year vets Highlight (the act formerly known as Beast). The members appeared on stage in lab coats, looking every bit like high fashion scientists. For the opener “Plz Don’t Be Sad,” the quintet’s second single post-rebranding, the members got the millennial crowd whooping along to the high-energy chorus as they laughed and smiled between lines. They breezed through their set with their on-point vocals and their energy – they know how to engage a crowd. Though 2017’s “It’s Still Beautiful” seemed to be a shoe-in for their first KCON as Highlight, they went further back and gifted older K-pop fans with performances of their 2014 single “Good Luck,” where Yoseob’s opening vocals absolutely shone, and their electronic 2012 single “Beautiful Night” which got the crowd on their feet.
Most noticeable throughout their set was the lack of a backing track. Highlight have established themselves as a vocally strong group through their performances and albums, and they further cemented that reputation with tonight’s virtually flaw-free live set. Highlight was less focused on hitting every move with razor-like precision and more focused on showcasing their powerful vocals and letting the crowd feel their energy through their obviously visible excitement. The members performed with an ease and cool confidence that can only after years of practice and performances.
On the flip side of the absolute high of Highlight’s performance, the show definitely had its shortcomings. KNK performed a solid set of three of their singles at the very start of the show, only to go backstage and reappear at the very end – with no special MC spots, no Fortune Wheel, no cover performance in between other artists’ sets. The complete lack of appearances after their set did a disservice to the band’s Tinkerbells, but one can only hope they’ll return to a future KCON with the chance to show everything they have to audiences.